In Bohemian Rhapsody, Rami Malek does a whole lot to look like Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. He dons dentures, wears wigs, lip syncs, and moves his body in studied calculation. It is like watching a wax figurine come to life. Fascinating maybe, but only for a moment. Since when is this what denotes a good performance?
The Academy seems to disagree with me here. Two of the most recent Best Actor winners have been performances in biopics that rely heavily on physical resemblance. There was Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, a performance entirely consisted of twitches and ticks, perfectly deployed to fool the audience into thinking he’s capturing the genius, when in fact he barely scratched the surface. And then there was Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, which is admittedly a better performance, but still not a great one, fat suit and all. I do not blame Oldman for falling for this trick; it is the crux of most successful biopics (I do blame Redmayne, however, as this is a style of empty acting that he brings to every role since his breakout in Les Miserables).
A performance is not inherently good just because it appears recognizable. Fake teeth and wigs and prosthetics do not denote character. Replication is not creation. This is where so many biopics fail; commitment to recreation leaves little room for artistry, god forbid imagination. Look deep into your subject and discover what they’re about. What did they live for? What did they die for? Distill their essence into film, and then that’s all you need. Screw facts. Show me their soul.
Bohemian Rhapsody does none of this. It is a film that plays like a two-hour trailer, a simultaneously rushed and over-long summation of their greatest hits. There is nothing here that you cannot find in the barest of history books. Freddie Mercury was a radical, queer man who blazed through the world like lightning. He was also a hell of an artist, seemingly unable to contain his fearless ambition. You get the sense watching him perform that without music as an outlet, he would simple explode. What I want to know is why he is like this. Why did he chose music as his outlet dejour? Bohemian Rhapsody appears entirely uninterested in this. There is no sense of why Freddie creates music, why he is drawn to it, why he is good (besides perfect pitch). There is no “why” behind anything at all, only “it happened”. I know nothing about Queen apart and Bohemian Rhapsody taught me nothing. For hardcore fans, I can’t imagine this being anything other than Intro 101.
When Freddie realizes he wrote a great lyric, he tears up. At the surface level, it is a good moment. Here is this artist, seemingly laid bare and intimate, doing what he loves the most. Except there is nothing to back it up. Why is he crying at his own writing? Why does his own talent bring him to tears? Is it relief, pride, love? Did he ever doubt himself? Is there something he is overcoming?
Or take this egregious scene from the film’s first third, where we get our first hint of Freddie’s queerness. He is using a payphone at a rest stop when a stereotypical American trucker walks past, and Freddie ogles him, watching as he walks into the restroom, the door closing in slow motion as to make sure we do not miss the word “MEN” painted white and obvious on the wood. We’re supposed to take it as a realization for him, a sort of reckoning, except his thoughts are never exposed. It is just a part of the script of his life. Bohemian Rhapsody is not concerned with how Freddie feels, only with sticking to accuracy.
But what is a biopic if not a recreation of a past reality? We all want to see our past heroes, historical figures, demons brought to life before our eyes, to pretend that we were actually there. Many great filmmakers rest their success on accurate period recreation — Richard Linklater, to name one. But they are successful because there is more than that. Want accuracy? Write a book. Make a documentary. Since when is narrative cinema beholden to history? Leave the wax in the museum and make a damn movie. Cinema is a beautiful, boundless form that can do things in a way other art forms cannot. Books, television, music; they all have their own way at approaching a subject. If you choose film as the way to capture someone, dig deep and discover how the medium can explore that person that other things cannot. Take risks. And if you want to truly be successful, best to wait until your subject is dead.
But more than anything, forget likeness. The only resemblance we need is of their character, their inner mind. Motivation is a powerful storytelling tool, and everyone has one. Find it. Eviscerate it, then put it back together again.
At the mid-way point of the film, Freddie delivers a warning to a potential suitor. Speaking of his fiancé, he tells him, “Mary knows me in a way that no one else ever will.” If only Bohemian Rhapsody knew what Mary did. Now that would be worth watching.